You don’t need to know much about Ireland to realise that potatoes are important here. They are not eaten in the quantities they were before the Famine (more than 3kg a day apparently) and they are losing in popularity as Northern European diets get more adventurous and pasta and rice become increasingly important as a source of carbohydrates. But the Irish still love their spuds.
I quickly had to make a decision about what varieties I was going to grow and made a few mistakes this year.
The first was to ignore ‘British Queen’. Being a sensitive soul and finding myself living in the Republic, I thought it would be tantamount to treason, or whatever it is in a republic, to plant anything with Royal connections (‘King Edwards’ were also out though I did plant a few ‘Red Duke of York’). So I felt a fool when I discovered that one of the best loved potatoes is ‘British Queen’ and the first of the season are celebrated everywhere with stalls springing up, piled high with plastic bags of freshly dug tubers, announcing ‘Queens – balls of flour’.
Therein lay another mistake I made. I planted mostly waxy potatoes, thinking them the tastiest, based on my own opinion. But I discovered that the vast majority of Irish prefer floury spuds. My delicious ‘Pink Fir Apple’ have gone down like a lead balloon.
Last year was a disastrous year for all veg but especially potatoes, with late blight causing a real problem for anyone growing their own who didn’t spray. But there are some potatoes that are resistant and the most famous are the ‘Sarpo’ range, initially bred in Hungary but now developed in Wales. (for all the details visit http://www.sarvari-trust.org/ )
One of the best known is ‘Sarpo Axona’, a red-skinned, maincrop variety. It has large tubers and creamy flesh and great resistance to late blight. But although we should all be celebrating this useful variety it, and its siblings, have come in for some stick. Look it up on the web and you will see negative comments about it, particularly its culinary qualities. It also has very tall haulms (tops) and it doesn’t seem to want to stop growing in autumn. So let’s set the record straight and answer some of the criticisms one by one.
This is a vigorous variety – and vigour is good. The seed potatoes (small tubers and not seed as we usually know it) were planted in late April, later than usual because of the late spring. The shoots soon appeared and when they were about 15cm high they were earthed up, to cover the shoots with soil. This helps protect them from late frosts, helps prevent light getting to the developing tubers and can increase yield because the tubers form on the stem, not the roots. The tops quickly reached at least 1m high and as they fell over at the edges to cover bare ground the holes were quickly filled in with more foliage. It is superb, weed-suppressing ground cover!
This means that it is not the best for growing in pots or potato bags because you will end up with a waterfall of greenery.
And because they seem reluctant to stop growing it is worth cutting off the tops in September so you can harvest the tubers a few weeks later.
This year there was very little blight – it didn’t affect the last potatoes and tomatoes until late September, but there was no sign of damage on ‘Sarpo Axona’.
This was a dry year and I did have to resort to watering at times. The soil was enriched with lots of mushroom compost in spring. In September the crop was harvested and the crop was impressive. As we dug across the plot and left the tubers on the surface to dry out before bagging, they looked really good. When it came to bagging and sorting through them there were comparatively few with slug damage and at least 80% were good enough for storage. What was noticeable was that the tuber size varied hugely. The larger tubers were rather flat in many cases and they were as big as a foot – and a similar shape! There were lots of smaller ones too and although it may be a problem to get such a variety of sizes if you are growing for a supermarket it is probably an advantage for a home grower.
The proof is in the eating
With so many negative comments about the taste and cooking of these I was not expecting anything special.
I have eaten them mostly boiled and so far have had no problem with them breaking up in the pan and they are rather dry so when making mash I have to add lots of milk (and some butter). But they make a great mash.
They also make good chips, wedges and roast ok too. Though I can’t say they are my favourite for taste, because I really like waxy spuds, these are a great standard potato.
If you have a large plot, want to garden organically and need to produce a crop of spuds whatever the weather this is a good choice. I would not recommend it for small plots or gourmands or for growing in pots – otherwise give it a go.
Available in garden centres and from Thompson & Morgan